Anxiety. Burnout. Lack of purpose and direction. These are feelings that have become all too familiar to twenty and thirty-somethings facing the crux of early adulthood we now call the quarter-life crisis. And – as comes with the territory of anything characterized as a “crisis” – getting through can feel like just two words: Completely. Overwhelming.
I know, because I’ve drudged through the thick of it myself.
I can probably pin the first inklings of my own quarter-life crisis to that ittttty-bitty itch you start to get when you’re not feeling super fulfilled at work: the itch for something more meaningful, the itch to use more of your potential, the itch to keep growing. So, overachiever that I am, I followed my itch down the path of 2 GMAT’s, business school applications, job applications and a side hustle all at the same time – all the while something else entirely began to change throughout the process.
As more and more stress built up and more pressure to do something great with my “one wild and precious life” had me feeling more spent and unhappy than ever before, I began to realize that when it came to measuring my life, success wasn’t actually my next promotion, the New York City brunches and exotic vacations I had worked so hard to afford, or even necessarily doing what I loved if doing what I loved took away from living a life I loved.
So I did the only reasonable thing someone questioning their career, love life, spiritual beliefs and the meaning of life all at the same time would do. I Eat Pray Loved. I quit my job, booked a one-way ticket to get my yoga certification in Bali, backpacked through Southeast Asia, and then moved back home for a year while I continued to figure it out.
By this point I imagine you’re hoping I’ll give you all the answers, or at least tell you how to skip over the years-long process I went through so you don’t have to, too. The good news is you don’t have to give up your life and go halfway around the world in order to find yourself, and the journey of the quarter-life crisis is not reserved only for those who have the privilege of using a start-up bonus to do so. The bad news is there’s no quick fix, but I’d also be seriously robbing you of one of the most beautiful moments of deep and personal exploration in your life if I gave you one. Instead, here are 5 ways to help you navigate the process from wherever you are in life, and to turn completely-overwhelming into not only manageable, but truly live-changing.
1. Give yourself space
First things first: Ditch the “shoulds.” I should be farther along by 30. I should be answering my email late at night. I should be doing all the things I see everyone else doing on Instagram. If they’re not yours, they’re not helpful. One of the things I think truly helped the most about spending much of my journey in different countries was that it removed me completely from many of the pressures that often influence our decision-making. What I wanted didn’t initially have to answer to next month’s rent, or what my peers thought about it. I could fit it into the real world only after I got really clear on what my truth was outside of it. But you don’t have to book a plane ticket to get the same effect. Take a week off and make yourself a mini staycation. Find a weekend retreat. Meditate. Get out in nature. Be free. When you take a step back, you just might find the answers are there, they just needed the room to rise.
2. Make real time for reflection
You’re not going to learn anything without putting the work in. That means reading, journaling, goal-setting, and not making excuses for not having the time. Throughout my year off I can hardly count the number of activities and journaling exercises I used to really evaluate things like my strengths, values and priorities…and guess what? They changed a ton since I was 18, or even 22! When many of us are first graduating college, we have a certain idea of how the world works, and we base our decisions off that understanding. Well, as more information and more life experience comes in over time, we begin to adjust that image. As we mature, so do our values and our life philosophies. Take the time to actually define (or re-define) these things so you can live a life that is truly aligned with them
I can’t stress this one enough. You aren’t going to know until you try, and the more data points you can gather, the more-informed choices you’re going to make. Challenge your limiting beliefs. If someone’s told you that you can’t do something your whole life, try it out and see if it’s actually true. If you’ve been on a linear trajectory you’re whole life, try stepping off and see that perhaps you can, actually, build in more than one direction. Pivot by Jenny Blake was my bible during this time. It emphasizes rather than putting all the pressure on making one huge change, to just focus on your next step. Run mini experiments, take mini risks, and you’ll slowly wiggle yourself in the right direction.
4. Learn to enjoy the process
There’s a concept in psychology called the hedonic treadmill – the idea that we overestimate the impact certain changes such as a boost in salary or that perfect relationship will give us, only to return relatively quickly to our previous levels of happiness. Seriously, even people who win the lottery end up going back to their regular happy. You can’t win. The thing is, we’re often trained so much since childhood to stay on the fast track and keep our eye on the prize (“I’ll be happy when…”) that most of our solutions just involve trying to spin the treadmill faster and faster, and we forget to allow ourselves to be happy in the moment. So, whether it’s making the next career move, or just getting through this time in your life, don’t rush it and learn to be present for the journey. The dots always connect when you follow what you love, so do the things that make you happy and it will eventually work out.
5. Find support
If you feel like you’re the only one going through all this questioning and feeling like you’re lost, I assure you, you are not. Wanting change doesn’t mean you screwed up your first few jobs, relationships, or whatever else you’re feeling confused about. It simply means you’re growing – and get used to it, it’s a process that will never fully stop (at least I hope not!). There are countless books, Facebook groups, and resources to help you feel a little less crazy, and when I look back I even include therapy as one of the most significant things that helped me process and work through my own thoughts.
As it turns out, I’m now going back to school for my Masters to become a licensed therapist myself, and I now offer a program that deep dives into the science behind motivation, fulfillment, and more at work, which also incorporates some of the exercises that helped me through my journey the most and will be coming back this January for those interested. If you’re interested in more blog posts, insights or 1:1 coaching, you can also find me on Instagram at @kimbielak, or visit my site and sign up for the newsletter at kimbielak.com.
At the end of the day, a quarter-life crisis is not something you simply survive, but an unparalleled opportunity to take a step back, recalibrate, and grow in ways you never imagined you would. Enjoy the journey for all its ups and downs, and wishing you joy in all 2020 has in-store for you.